Monday, September 1, 2014

Beijing: Hitting the (huge, crazy, busy, lawless) streets

In July, my friend and I traveled all by ourselves to Beijing for one week. It was the first time either of us had ever been on the road without any other responsible adult besides ourselves. (I can’t speak for her, but I still have trouble, uh, identifying with that epithet.) We managed just fine, but one thing’s for sure: I won’t be recommending Beijing as a first-time destination to other teenagers anytime soon! It’s a big and bustling city, a world capital that I think you could probably get more out of if you’ve been a seasoned globetrotter for a while.

If you’re going to venture to the Northern Capital anyway, go prepared! To help you a few stumbling steps on the way, this is the first of a few posts I’ll be making about my experiences in Beijing.

(För alla svennar: Vi reste med erbjudandet Peking en vecka hos Lotus Travel. Riktigt prisvärt, även utan rabatten vi hade: ordinarie pris inte ens 8000 kr per person för flyg, hotell 6 nätter inkl. frukost, transfer samt visum. Kan bara klaga på det halvdåliga hotelläget, men vafan!!!)

generic tourist photo, because i suck at taking pixxx.
from china.org.cn (yay sourcing!)


This was my second time visiting Beijing. The first time was under the loving custody of the organizers behind the Chinese Bridge Competition, who kept us behind hotel doors when they weren’t shuttling us between the great sights (and equally great restaurants!) in enough buses to form a veritable fleet. Needless to say, experiencing it solo and unprotected was very different. 

For one thing, the cozy inside of the bus kept us sheltered from the crazy Beijing traffic. The only rule here is that there are no rules (unless you’re someplace crawling with cops). Traffic lights and crosswalks are decorative formalities. If lying on your horn for 15 minutes doesn’t magically make the car in front of you disappear, do it anyway. Your best bet to get across a street is to find a Chinese person, or better yet a group of Chinese people, to latch onto. Otherwise, just walk firmly with a clear destination in mind, resist the urge to run, and they’ll know when to swerve and hopefully not hit you.

ok, so it wasn't this bad... most of the time.
from wikipedia. i have class

Anyone considering going to Beijing needs to know that it is HUGE. Hearing people tell you this and experiencing it in real life are two very different things. Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, is a tiny city of barely a million people, and with the right shoes you can walk it from end to end. Larger European cities like London and Rome are still pretty navigable by foot and tube. Beijing, though … it’s not just the area, the sheer scale of everything is totally gargantuan. The roads are wide, the buildings tall, and everything is really, really far away from everything else.

Navigating Beijing was different from any other place I’ve been. This is not a city where you take a leisurely stroll down a picturesque boulevard - most streets are industry-scale, boxy monsters that will leave your eyes unsatisfied and your feet aching should you attempt to trek them all the way through. Once, while looking for cafés near Beihai Park, we made a wrong turn and ended up walking for probably half an hour along the walls surrounding the government areas just north of Tiananmen Square. We saw no turn-offs or escapes, just a few crosswalks into a residential area. Unless you’re on a shopping street, you’ll need to know exactly where you’re going, because things are too far apart to spontaneously catch your eye and you’ll end up aimlessly wandering along an endless, featureless road, stuck in the concrete jungle.

As for alternatives: the subway might bring you closer to your destination, but often, the only way to get where you need to go without at least one 15- or 20-minute walk is to take a taxi.  Taxis are cheap and ubiquitous, and we rode them everywhere. 
(Remember that stuff about the crazy traffic? Yeah? Well, the back seats of the taxis where you’ll be spending a lot of your time don't have any seat belts. Just thought you should know.) But they’re difficult to flag down at rush hour and aren’t allowed to stop on the main roads - making one hard to catch if you’re in a very populated area. On our last night, we were so tired and having such trouble hailing a cab that we ended up taking the subway to a place we remembered having no problem finding taxis before, and catching one from there. 

from itourbeijing.com

A word of warning: do not enter any “taxi” being offered to you from the side of the street. These are illegal, private cars who will overcharge you at best, rob you and drop you off somewhere strange (or not at all...) at worst. Always hail an official cab yourself: they’re easy to recognize and have meters that will print a receipt at the end of the ride. The fare starts at 13 RMB and rarely comes to more than 40 RMB within central Beijing. One extra RMB is added for gas. Always make sure the meter’s ticking!

You might be considering another method of travel: the moped-driven rickshaws, with their comfy-looking, shaded wagons. The short version here is: Don’t. The long version? Stay tuned…

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